State health departments face government barriers to interoperability, report says

State health departments can harness data analytics to inform policy and improve outcomes for large populations—but there are a number of hurdles to fully taking advantage of the technology, according to a new report. 

Researchers at Leavitt Partners interviewed officials at state health departments in Utah, Oklahoma, Washington, Colorado and Idaho to gather a cross-section of states at different points in the journey to a robust and interoperable analytics program. 

Through those interviews, the authors were able to identify several pain points for health officials looking to expand their abilities to gather and use data. In particular, governance and legal challenges, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), pose a significant barrier to data sharing for these agencies. 

"We were somewhat surprised by how much these data use agreements prevent the exchange of information across the siloes," Ryan Howells, principal at Leavitt and the report's lead author, told FierceHealthcare.

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Ryan Howells Leavitt Partners
Ryan Howells (Leavitt Partners)

States that are farther along in the process also have leadership buy-in from the top down to improve health IT systems, Howells said. Data-sharing expands beyond the health department to other agencies, such as criminal justice, and requires governors and other top state leaders to be involved in the push for change. 

Howells said that in some cases, the technology available for data gathering and sharing has been developed and enhanced more quickly, which means some states are left playing catch-up. 

"The technology has progressed faster than the states have had the ability to ingest the information," he said. "The challenge becomes, 'How do we make sense of all this amazing information?'" 

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Greater use of artificial intelligence tools to analyze data is the next frontier as states look to better harness the data they have, Howells said. States such as Washington and Colorado, which have more robust programs than some of their peers, were early adopters of this technology, which Howell said can free caseworkers up from the more administrative tasks and allow them to focus on patients' needs. 

However, interoperability issues prevent these agencies from using AI to its fullest potential, according to the report. 

Beyond the broad data challenges facing states, the report dives into specific programs in which the five states have taken an innovative approach to analytics. Utah, for instance, is expanding data sharing between its health department and its department of corrections to better match prisoners with needed services and prevent reoffending. 

"Although barriers to fully deploying data in an attempt to reduce recidivism still exist, this example demonstrates a state asking the right questions about how they can leverage data to improve outcomes for one of their most challenging populations," the researchers said. 

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Idaho is focusing on improving the consumer experience through technology. When it launched a statewide program to build an analytics system to track quality measures—a project funded by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation—it also overhauled its Live Better Idaho website, which connects patients with providers and other services. 

The state is also looking to further enhance the site to make it easier for patients to find what they need, according to the report.